Vagina Obscura and Bitch — the female of the species

Same-sex activity, long ignored by scientists, is widespread in many species, including the bisexual bonobo © Science Photo Library

With reproductive rights devastatingly at stake in the US, as the historic Roe vs Wade ruling on abortion looks likely to be overturned, women’s bodies remain a political battleground. Long considered the second sex, the female sex — and, in particular, female sexuality — has been misunderstood and maligned since time immemorial.

We know this to be true culturally; what’s shocking is how much it affects what we take to be scientific fact. Two new books tackle the subject from different angles, offering an important corrective to the “accidental sexism” baked into so many biological studies.

In the provocatively titled Bitch, Lucy Cooke, a broadcaster with a background in zoology, debunks longstanding myths about female sexuality in the animal kingdom. Until the end of the 20th century, when more women entered the field of evolutionary biology, female animals were rarely a focus of study. Cooke meets the scientists taking a closer look — challenging gendered assumptions dating back to the Victorian era, and beyond.

A Darwinian dichotomy holds that male animals are propelled by a biological imperative to spread their seed, while females coyly await impregnation and are naturally monogamous to protect their brood. Tell that to the queen of the jungle: the indefatigable lioness can copulate hundreds of times a day with multiple mates during oestrus. “True till-death-do-us-part sexual monogamy,” it turns out, is “extremely rare.” DNA testing has shown more than 93 per cent of animal species to be non-monogamous, with polyandry far more common than had been believed.

Despite his genius, Charles Darwin “was viewing the natural world through a Victorian pinhole camera”, concludes Cooke, and his legacy has loomed large as his successors suffered from “a chronic case of confirmation bias”. Because natural selection couldn’t account for flourishes such as the peacock’s tail, Darwin surmised that animals struggle not only to survive but to mate. His theory of sexual selection posited that it was males who compete for females, which he attributed to the abundance of sperm versus the rarity of eggs.

On closer observation, however, female animals demonstrate much more agency than had been assumed. Female topi, for example, gather in the grassy plains of the Maasai Mara during rutting season to spar for a spin with the prime bull. The vaginal morphology of some species can even control the paternity of offspring — what Cooke calls “a homegrown ‘cock-blocker’”.

Further challenging Darwin’s theory of sexual selection is the fact that not all pleasure-seeking is for procreation. Like humans, orang-utans and marmosets are sexually active throughout their fertility cycle. Same-sex activity, long ignored by scientists, is widespread in many species, including the bisexual bonobo.

Regaled with Cooke’s fun facts about the wildly varying sex lives of animals, the temptation to draw parallels with human behaviour is irresistible. (She admits to anthropomorphising animals for storytelling purposes.) But in light of the enormous impact of culture, just how much can our furry and feathered friends elucidate human sexuality? We wouldn’t want to emulate the coital cannibalism of arachnid femmes fatales, say, or the coercive mating of mallard ducks.

Even our closest great ape relatives differ greatly. As the primatologist Frans de Waal emphasises in Different: What Apes Can Teach Us About Gender (2022), humans are equally related genetically to both patriarchal chimps and “make-love-not-war” bonobos, suggesting a spectrum of possible behaviour.

Since “most scientists agree that non-human animals do not have gender”, the issue of gender falls outside of the scope of Cooke’s book. “Wielding animals as ideological weapons is a dangerous game,” she warns. And yet in a chapter titled “Beyond the Binary”, she pronounces phenomena such as sex-switching clownfish a “body blow to the binary dogma”. Just as Darwin and his disciples risked imposing the mores of the era on to theories of animal behaviour, we must take care not to project our present preoccupations.

As in other species, human female biology has historically been woefully under-studied. “Most of our scientific understanding of [the female body] is built off of the study of male bodies,” writes science journalist Rachel E Gross in Vagina Obscura, her debut book.

It was not until 1993 that a US federal mandate required researchers to include women and minorities in clinical research, and even since then research has been focused mostly on fertility. The sometimes fatal ramifications of the assumption of a default male — from clinical trials to crash-test dummies — have been exposed by authors including Caroline Criado Perez in her 2019 book Invisible Women, and Gross’s book is part of a welcome trend of titles addressing women’s health.

A woman’s body may well be “more complex, more obscure, with much of its plumbing tucked up inside”, Gross writes, but our understanding of it stems less from a lack of tools than of will. Hippocrates had identified the clitoris and Aristotle connected it to pleasure in the fourth century BC. But it took until 2004, when the Australian urologist Helen O’Connell published her dissertation “Review of the Anatomy of the Clitoris”, for the extent of the organ to be understood. Her research found that the external nub is just the tip of the iceberg: a “clitoral complex” 10 times the size reaches around the vagina and extends into the pelvis.

Vagina Obscura covers not only the vagina but what Gross refers to as its “colleagues”: the uterus, ovum and ovaries, as well as a chapter on “neovaginas” constructed for trans women. Like Cooke, Gross believes “the marginalisation of women’s bodies from science is largely due to the marginalisation of women from science”.

She highlights the work of pioneers including Miriam Menkin, a lab technician who was the first to fertilise a human egg in vitro in 1944; Ghada Hatem, who performs reparative surgery on survivors of female genital cutting; and Marci Bowers, a trans gynaecologist performing vaginoplasties in hopes of giving her patients a better result than her surgery in 1997.

While the chapter on neovaginas and Gross’s interview with an intersex activist are illuminating, readers vexed by the war of words surrounding female biology should consider themselves forewarned. In an introduction, Gross explains that she often uses the word “woman” “in a historical sense, to show how men have drawn a line around those with certain body parts and slotted them into the category of ‘woman’”. Inclusivity is to be applauded but some of the language resulting from the book’s three sensitivity readers may exasperate those who chafe at terms such as “people who menstruate”.

Both Bitch and Vagina Obscura make a convincing case for the importance of diversity among scientists in order to bridge the knowledge gap between sexes, and are a clarion call that the remaining terra incognita of female biology merits far more comprehensive mapping.

Vagina Obscura: An Anatomical Voyage by Rachel E Gross WW Norton, $30/£19.99, 352 pages

Bitch: A Revolutionary Guide to Sex, Evolution and the Female Animal by Lucy Cooke Doubleday, £20/Basic Books, $18.99, 400 pages

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